The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet And Other Stories by Vandana Singh
|Book Name:||The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet And Other Stories|
|Genre(s):||Science Fiction / Short Stories|
|Release Date:||January 30, 2009|
Less traditional fantasy and more subtle speculative fiction, Vandana Singh’s collection of short stories The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet ranges far and wide over the fertile ground of India’s rigid traditionalism, puncturing targets like religion and domesticity with a series of intriguing departures from reality. Set for the most part in modern day India, the speculative elements of these stories are deployed with subtlety and care and are often unique to a single character. Unexplainable events that alter the life or viewpoints of those effected pass unnoticed by everyone else, so much so that many of the protagonists question what they have seen and, by extension, themselves. Much like Charlotte Perkins-Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” the spectre of potential delusion hangs over more than a few of Singh’s characters, but by incorporating many of the elements of fable and fairy tale Singh manages to deftly avoid concerns of delusion that arise when juxtaposing the fantastic with the real and contemporary.
Sometimes, however, this subtle touch fails and the characters and their environment are overwhelmed as the speculative is allowed to dominate the story. “Thirst” for example sees the central character all but disappear beneath the novel impossibility of bodily transformation. Singh succeeds most completely when this is not the case, when the speculative instead is simply a lens through which the restrictions and trappings of ordinary life can be turned over and examined afresh. “Infinities” is by far the best example of this, where the character, the environment and the speculative all combine to accentuate, rather than overwhelm, each other.
It is easy to read these stories as inherently feminist. Women are at the heart of the collection, not always because the central character is a woman but because there is a constant probing of the rules and fairness of the domestic sphere in which Singh’s women tend to operate, an examination of the weight of tradition and responsibility that imprisons. Thus women suffocated under the crushing weight of family, of duty, of marriage are frequently liberated by the intervention of the fantastic operating at the periphery of domestic routine. In “Thirst” a mother is given a new lease on life as she turns into a water snake, then (mostly) back into a woman. In the titular story, another becomes convinced she is a planet that plays host to a community of unique life forms and begins to change her routine, establishing orbits and rotation. Several of these liberations take the form of creation as new life is made or discovered, albeit in unexpected ways, while others simply highlight the unbalanced state of play in Indian domestic life without necessarily freeing or liberating those trapped by it in an obvious manner.
Singh writes simply for the most part, but is capable of intensely poetic turns of phrase, frequently shifting gears in a most disarming manner. After a fairly hum-drum beginning that effectively evokes the claustrophobic domesticity of “Hunger”, the opening story, Singh delivers an emotional gut-punch that sheds new light upon the central character Divya and her compulsion to feed:
“She was ten years old, and had been visiting an aunt’s house in the summer. It was an old bungalow, ridden with denizens of all kinds, including an army of mice. Her Uncle had set poisoned food all over the house and killed off the army. Divya had a vivid memory of their tiny corpses, their bodies twisted with the final agony, all over the house. Then, a day or two later, there had been the smell in her room, which had finally been traced to a nest behind the big wooden cupboard. Twelve baby mice, pink and hairless, had died of starvation after the adults had been killed. All the time Divya had been reading her mystery books and sipping her lemonade, those babies had been dying. She had cried for days.”
That wonderful aside excepted, “Hunger” is certainly not the best Singh has to offer. It stumbles to a rather inane conclusion after an only slightly promising start, so it is a shame that it was chosen to front the collection. Still, it would be criminal to dismiss the whole based solely on the quality of the first story, for there are gems here. The standout undoubtedly is “Infinities”. In it Abdul Karim, a muslim mathematician, is determined to solve and understand infinity, motivated by the failure of the great thinkers of the past:
“Archimedes and Ramanujan, Khayyam and Cantor died with epiphanies on their lips before an indifferent world.”
For Karim mathematics, and his pursuit of infinity, is about more than just numbers. It is the pursuit of beauty itself:
“It is not strange for a mathematics master to be obsessed with numbers. But for Abdul Karim, numbers are the stepping stones, rungs in the ladder that will take him […] from the prosaic ugliness of the world to infinity.”
The story hinges around the friendship between Karim and Gangadhar, a Hindu poet. Singh uses their relationship to highlight a simmering racial tension that builds darkly throughout the story, finally erupting in violent and bloody conflict. It is then, as his sick mother dies, that Karim surrenders to his farishte, shadowy angelic beings who have watched over him since childhood, and is given a glimpse of infinity. What happens next is worth preserving so I will not summarise it.
The story unfolds with beautiful delicacy and a quiet grace over nearly twice as many pages as the book’s other offerings, and Singh uses the extra room to create a far richer tapestry. Here Singh has all her elements in perfect harmony. The character is interesting and easy to view sympathetically. The setting is deep, and the speculative grows organically out of the narrative, enhancing rather than threatening to overwhelm it. The language is exquisite throughout, and the story evolves slowly and unexpectedly into a deeply moving account that ambitiously ties the life-consuming pursuit of mathematical perfection to deeper, existential conundrums.
“The Tetrahedron” continues to probe existential perspectives, and is one of the few stories in which the speculative is undeniable. A large tetrahedron descends from the sky, landing in a busy New Delhi street. Within days the world is watching. Is it a spaceship? A weapon? Tourists and news crews flock to the city to investigate but in the end it is Maya, a university student, who unravels the mystery with the help of her friend Samir, an astrophysicist. Like “Infinities” this story contains some amount of technical prose, in this case a discussion of the mathematical field of Topology, but it is neither intrusive, overly dry, nor hard to follow. Again the central female character is being crushed under the weight of tradition. Her arranged marriage prevents her from pursuing Samir:
“But what Maya relived most often in her mind was the feeling when she had touched the Tetrahedron – the feeling of how useless and insignificant her life was against the unending mystery of the universe. Now, with Samir talking eloquently about aliens traversing the distances between stars, she had felt it again, the pointlessness of a life lived small. In a few years she would be like her sisters, plump and resigned, children running at her feet while Kartik gazed benignly at her from the sofa over the evening paper. “Maya, you know that sari doesn’t suit you….” Maya this and Maya that. Could she take a lifetime of it?”
Yet of all the stories in this collection that highlight the forces that imprison women, this has the most to offer. The final epiphany is not trite or unsatisfying, the tragedy of requited love that cannot be is moving and well written, effectively demonstrating the impossible situation Maya finds herself in at the hands of tradition. Perhaps the final scene with Maya could have given more, could have done more with her character. This, alas, is one of Singh’s failings. Even when freed from their restraints her characters rarely display more than a rediscovered happiness or the promise of a fresh perspective. Despite that “The Tetrahedron” deftly walks the fine line between the concrete world of science and the turbulent worlds of love and imagination, providing Singh’s endorsement of a life lived in respect to all three.
In the end this is a subtle, intriguing collection that will offer a new perspective for most readers. The majority of the stories are enjoyable, without being outstanding, suffering from some repetition in theme and either a lack of real punch or a feeling of disjointedness in the conclusion. Singh is undoubtedly at her best when dealing with the complex, the scientific, the existential, the speculative grounded in the scientific. She is notably improved, too, when given more ample room to write than the majority of these stories provide. One cannot help but feel a sense of lost opportunity here, that the collection would have been substantially improved by removing some of the weaker stories and allowing the stronger ones more space. Regardless of these failings “The Tetrahedron” and particularly “Infinities” are worth the price of admission. Soaring, emotional, complex and imaginative, they remind us what speculative fiction should be about and why the shift in perspective it provides is so valuable.